The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

I’ve said it before and will continue to say it as long as the many years ahead I plan to write this blog: This is a great time to be an artist.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
English novelist (1812 – 1870)

Art and commerce – Making room for both

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Some find pursuing commerce in parallel with producing art a soulless pursuit. I can understand such sentiment. Since this blog mainly is about the business of art; about helping artists make a living from their art, I suppose not many who feel that way regularly read it.

Just acknowledging art comes from an intensely personal place makes it easy to grasp that sales and marketing activities sullies the process for some artists. The Art Biz Coach, Alyson Stanfield, neatly summed up the notion in the title of her bestselling book, I’d Rather Be in the Studio.

On a personal level, I quite honestly would rather write for a living than work at marketing and sales for a high tech firm. It’s not that the work is distasteful or unrewarding because it is neither. It’s just not what I’d do if I didn’t have a need for decent benefits and a steady income. With no regrets, I suppose if I’d had the epiphany to think this way in younger years, I would have done things differently. Younger artists reading this, please take note.

Many very successful print artists rose through the ranks of illustrators

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If you study the history of many artists who have “made it”, you find a common thread. That is, many of them supported themselves by toiling away doing other things. Look at the number of fine artists who began as illustrators and ended up with significant careers in the print market. Their ranks make an impressive “Who’s Who” list, including Howard Behrens,  Arnold Friberg, Richard Thompson, Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol. A list that represents a mere smattering of artists who traveled this path.

In some ways, a career starting as an illustrator is the ideal training vehicle for would-be fine artists who seek a commercially viable career. They learn to create art that is both utilitarian and beautiful on demand. They learn the value of creating art that enhances commercial efforts. They learn to imbue their creativity into mundane things. Who could argue with the outcome?

There are those who decry the ongoing decline in the use of traditional illustrators who have seen their role usurped by technology and digital art. It is sad to think the system that bore so much fruit is no longer as necessary and one wonders how will new artists find their way now. From a nostalgic perspective, I agree. From a realistic perspective, I accept and welcome change and the unexpected outcome it will bring.

We are on the precipice of being amazed by how the best among us use technology to create art

I’m eager to see what the future holds for young graphic designers and artists working their magic on Wacom tablets in Painter, Illustrator, Photoshop and similar programs today. It will be fun to see how they have learned to harness the power of technology. It’s hard to imagine what they will bring forth from their own experiences toiling away in the halls of commerce while simultaneously working on their skills and building a body of work. This is not to say there aren’t already plenty of examples of artists creating phenomenal digital art that is creative, beautiful and thought provoking because there is. It is more to say years or decades of experience in a disciplined field tend to produce results unlike any other.

Some worry that technology tends to dumb down the culture with a “Calculators have no place in school rooms” mentality. The logical extension would be Photoshop, Painter and Illustrator make it too easy for hacks to get by. I argue the intrinsic qualities that make an artist unique will make that artist stand out against the best equipped hack. And, despite the occasional slip, the wisdom of crowds nearly always prevails allowing the best among us to properly be recognized and rewarded.

Making the argument that these are the worst of times is not difficult today

The state of the economy and the scary news around it is as great as nearly any living person can recall. Reading the front page or watching the evening news is a testament to our fortitude. Can any of us honestly do these things without feeling a bit or a lot uneasy? Certainly, what we are living through with unending waves of layoffs, bankruptcies, foreclosures and shocking economic bad news in many ways qualifies as the worst of times. You’ll get no argument here.

It is just as easy to make the argument this is the best of times for artists

I’ve said it before and will continue to say it as long as the many years ahead I plan to write this blog: This is a great time to be an artist. I go beyond just saying it’s great timing to be a visual artist, which encompasses fine artists, photographers, digital artists and graphic designers. It arguably is a great time to be a musician, an actor, or a writer, too.

Technology has made so many things possible, like this blog, for instance. Print-on-demand technology and increasing advancements in video and audio recording all put tremendous power in the hands of individual artists. Couple those advancements with the ability to deliver their creative output via the Internet and other digital distribution methods and you have a strong argument for this being the best of times. I think it is easy to forget that in the good old days breaking in as an artist in any genre was tough. It still is. What is different now is that artists of all stripes can make their own luck in ways not available to previous generations.

Life’s checks and balances seem fully in play just now

Perhaps it is the curse that comes with the blessing that these remarkable tools and advancements would arrive at a time of tremendous hardship and difficulty for many of us. Just as we are poised to make and deliver our best work, brilliantly made and eloquently presented, we are struck with a collector pool stunned by bad news and fears of worse to come.

It seems to me this is a time to learn not only how to harness technology for our individual gains, but also to learn how to use it in new ways to make for the collective good. That is for our fellow artists and for our shared body of collectors. How such a quaint and grandiose notion gets implemented is not for this post. It is rather for an ongoing dialog between all interested parties.

The light-speed evolution of social media and networking offers unwanted diversion and welcome opportunity

Most of us are still grasping with how to make good use and not foolish waste of time use of new and interesting tools such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs and even Web sites, for that matter. To be alive now is to be a living witness to changes that we feel and see everyday which ultimately will take us to new and different ways of making art and making distribution channels to deliver it. Some of these tools will go the way of VHS tapes and audio cassettes while other will evolve into deeply integrated aspects of our lives on nearly every level. It will be the best of times and a bit of a joy ride to participate and see how it all unfolds. You’ll be telling future generations about these times.

Don’t stop now

Technology is not a tool to make the works of hacks and amateurs passable. In the hands of the most talented, it will lift us and inspire us in ways we have yet to imagine. To my mind, it is the worst of times to be a pessimist and the best of times to be an optimist. It is a time to cautiously go forth with one’s best plans, and to be cautiously aware those plans will need to be monitored and adjusted to inevitable changes. If you are like everyone else, you have already slowed your roll a bit, which is natural and prudent. I do admonish you, however, to keep on moving and leave you with the wisdom of the Great Depression era’s best humorist and philosopher:

Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.
Will Rogers (1879 – 1935)

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Barney Davey

I help artists and photographers find buyers, sell more art and operate profitably.

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